The Corps' top west coast general is readying his Marines for the next big war

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U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, the commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, speaks to Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) during a visit aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4). Marines and Sailors with the 11th MEU are conducting routine operations as part of the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group in the eastern Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Lance Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck)

The Marine Corps' top general on the west coast is readying his Marines for the next big war against a near peer competitor, and one of his main concerns is figuring out how to alter the mindset of troops that have been fighting insurgencies since 9/11.

"If anything my problem is getting people out of the mindset of [counterterrorism] and making sure they're thinking about near peer adversaries in their training programs," Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, California, told Task & Purpose in an interview on Friday.


Exercise Pacific Blitz is one program in particular that is currently doing just that, involving thousands of Marines, sailors, and coast guardsmen training in and around southern California. The joint exercise not only brings together a large number of personnel but various assets as well, including Navy ships and landing craft, CH-53 helicopters, V-22 Ospreys, F-35s, and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), a ground-based artillery system the Marines have previously test-fired from amphibious transport ships.

The bigger picture goal: Getting a large force like the 50,000-strong I MEF from sea to shore in a contested environment, described by the general in a press release as leveraging "a Marine land component as part of our larger goal of sea control."

Osterman even said personnel were being put ashore at nearby Catalina Island to build aircraft runways — seemingly a throwback to the Marine Corps' island-hopping campaigns of World War II.

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"It's not part of the exercise necessarily but that's kind of one of the things we'd have to do on these remote islands is build runways. So it's somewhat tangentially aligned," Osterman said. "We're doing connector capability between islands."

In February, Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told Task & Purpose the Corps had begun to move its training to a more traditional fight instead of what grunts would face against unsophisticated enemies in the Middle East, most notably in using more advanced enemies in force-on-force training against Marines going through pre-deployment training at 29 Palms, California.

"They had aircraft. They were able to jam [communications]. We had aircraft. And we fought force on force," Neller said on the sidelines of the 2019 West Conference in San Diego. "Marine infantry now, they've gotta look up" since enemies in Syria and Iraq have increasingly used unmanned aerial vehicles, and near peers will have assets such as attack helicopters and artillery.

As Osterman explained, Marine grunts now need to learn how to counter enemy drones, prepare for their GPS or communications to be jammed, and understand that enemy artillery, aircraft, or reconnaissance capabilities will be much more advanced if they're up against an adversary like China or Russia.

"We haven't had to worry about that for two decades," Osterman said. "The Taliban doesn't have any satellites up there."

Some of Osterman's Marines have already had a taste of that in Syria, where state and non-state actors have employed high-end anti-aircraft systems, GPS jamming technology, or hacking, for example.

"The Special Purpose [Marine Air Ground Task Force] we send to Central Command is engaged in all of that. High end, you know, kinetics in Syria, all the way down through advising the Iraqi forces. It's one where we've gotta do it all, frankly."

"Instead of having a forward operating base out there that they're living out of and doing operations they've actually got to constantly be moving because if they sit too long the enemy artillery is going to take them out," Osterman said of tactics Marines are beginning to think about. "So that gets them almost a little bit, back to [their] roots."

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